Japan Temples and Shrines

Shrines and Temples – how they differ

In difference to the West, the Japanese do not identify with a specific religion. In fact, there’s a common saying that the Japanese are born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist. Because of this fluidity, it’s not uncommon to see shrines on temple grounds and vice versa. The biggest difference between a Shrine and a Temple is the religion practiced – Shinto is practiced at a Shrine and Buddhism at a Temple. Shinto is indigenous to Japan, whilst Buddhism, is an Indian import that first entered Japan in the 6th century.

The next observable difference is that a Shrine has a large Torri gate at the entrance, whilst a Temple will have many Buddhist statues in its grounds and a large bowl to burn insence.

If you are looking at a map or guidebood, the names are also easily distinguishable. Typically, you’ll find most shrines end with the suffix “jinjya,” meaning shrine in Japanese, but “taisha” or “jingu” are also common. Temples tend to utilize the suffixes “ji,” “in,” “tera” or “dera.”

Another interesting difference between Temples and Shrines is the entrance. If you encounter a pair of of fierce, warrior-like figures then you’re at a temple. These two figures are depictions of Bodhisattva and are commonly referred to as Agyo and Ungyo. Their ferocious appearance is said to guard against evil.

Alternatively if you see a pair of fox statues at the entrance, you’re at a Shinto “Inari” shrine. While innumerable forms of Shinto shrines exist, Inari shrines are the most common and represent over 30 percent of all shrines. Foxes are said the be the messengers of the god Inari.

If there is a graveyard, this almost always indicates a Buddhist temple. While most Japanese practice both Shintoism and Buddhism, funerals and burials are almost always held in the Buddhist tradition, as Buddhists are said to honour past life. A beautiful garden generally indicates a Temple, whilst Shrines are generally placed next to nature.

Finally Temple and Shrine rituals differ – which is explained elsewhere in this blog.

So to sum up:

  • a Torri gate at the entrance indicates a Shrine
  • a gate with two warrior like figures and your visiting a Temple
  • foxes at the entrance indicate a Shrine
  • figures (gods and godess) are found in a Temple
  • a beautiful garden and you are in a Temple

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